It is all change for trans police and policing, as increased awareness of trans sensitivities sees new rules for searching suspects – both who can do the searching and how people should be searched – emerging in the last few weeks.

First up is a long-awaited sweeping away of some of the last barriers to trans police officers playing a full and effective role in police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland last month. New guidelines on the searching of suspects made it clear that there should no longer be any obstacle to trans officers carrying out intimate and body searches of suspects of the appropriate gender.

This follows a change in advice to police forces issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers, overturning guidance in place since 2005 and bringing the Police into line with current legal rulings on this matter.

The issue arose in 2005, as ACPO issued what they then considered best practice guidance to police forces on searches of suspects by trans officers. Under PACE rules, non-intimate searches could be carried out by officers of either gender: but intimate and body searches could only be carried out by officers of the same gender as the suspect.

ACPO guidance therefore stated that officers in possession of a gender recognition certificate – which amends the gender on an individual’s birth certificate and renders them for almost all legal purposes the gender they identify as – could carry out such searches on individuals whose gender matched that now recorded for the officer. However, officers not in possession of a GRC – even those who had fully transitioned – would not be permitted to do so.

This was not a block on employing trans officers: but it led to the practice, in forces such as the Met, of issuing “search exemption certificates”, which opted trans officers out of doing body searches.

At the same time, this guidance was potentially at odds with a House of Lords ruling from the previous year (A v West Yorkshire Police (2004)), which held that no-one of a particular gender could reasonably object to being searched by a “transsexual who is visually and for all practical purposes indistinguishable from non-transsexual members of that gender”. Some forces, most notably the West Midlands, therefore treated individuals as their identified gender from the point at which they underwent “social transition”.

Confusion followed, with some forces following the court ruling, and some following ACPO guidance. ACPO lead on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender issues, Assistant Chief Constable Steph Morgan therefore wrote to Chief Constables and Commissioners on 24 May, advising them of a change in ACPO’s advice on this matter – and specifically over-turning previous advice in respect of the need for a trans police officer to hold a GRC.

Speaking exclusively to PinkNews.co.uk, Ms Morgan told us: “In response to requests from forces for guidance on trans staff searching detainees, ACPO sent a letter to all forces clarifying best practice on this issue. This letter sent in May 2012 demonstrates our commitment to dealing sensitively with transgender issues when they arise. Nationally ACPO has been working with the National Trans Police Association on trans issues and will continue to do so.”

A spokeswoman for the Met confirmed that they had now received the revised ACPO guidance and are presently reviewing the proposals.

Meanwhile, police searching of trans suspects, which has sometimes given rise to accusations of insensitivity or even abuse, is also about to change, with the issue last week of a new version of PACE Code C, dealing with the detention, treatment and questioning of non-terrorist suspects in police custody.

Annex L to these new rules sets out the procedure that police must follow where any doubt arises as to the gender of a detainee that needs to be searched intimately. This stipulates that individuals must, in the first instance, be asked to express a preference as to whether they wish to be dealt with as male or female. Where grounds for doubt still exist, the test will be: what is the predominant lifestyle that they follow. So if they express a preference to be dealt with as a woman but documents and other information suggest they live mostly as male, they will be treated as male.

Similar procedures will be invoked wherever an individual refuses to provide a gender preference. At no time may a police officer request sight of a gender recognition certificate.

Over the years, relations between the trans community and the police have been difficult and frequently marked by mutual suspicion. This approach is more likely, according to the Home Office to “minimise embarrassment and secure the person’s co-operation”. It is also, according to ACPO guidance on this change , likely to reduce the opportunity “for transvestite and transsexual detainees to attempt to ‘manipulate’ their stated sex in an attempt to embarrass and discredit the Police Service”.

A spokeswoman for the National Trans Police Association welcomed the changes as a long overdue and refreshing recognition of the presence of trans individuals both in the police and in the wider community.

She added: “While the ACPO guidance does not stipulate the form of rules that police forces should now adopt, it is our hope that others will now follow the Home Office guidelines and the West Midlands in taking social transition as the start point.